Still putting them onside.
Still putting them onside.

I returned recently to the friendly city of Pietermaritzburg for a bottom of the log clash, Maritzburg United v Jomo Cosmos. I officiated Maritzburg United a few weeks ago when they led 1-0, only to succumb to Hristo Stoitckov’s Mamelodi Sundowns 1-5. Stoitckov’s team is starting to get into their (slow) stride, an outfit capable of challenging for top honours. But it’s a long way to go as there is many a congested fixture to be fulfilled to the end of the PSL season in Feb10, a couple of months earlier then normal. This will ensure some respite for players before the ultimate showpiece here on our shores, World Cup 2010.

Both Maritzburg United and Jomo Cosmos are desperate to grab some much needed log points. Jomo Cosmos is rooted bottom in the Premier League. From a referee’s viewpoint these do-or-die clashes require a level of concentration that approaches those of a Zen master. As we arrived at the venue a 1½ hours before kick-off, there was a collective murmur when we got out of our car. Local security personnel, team supporters, local team players and management seems to have the view if they see a referee again, so soon after their previous (heavy) defeat, that the same match official just brings serious bad luck.

“Give us a break referee” was the usual retort among those congregated. I still amazes me how the focus of a teams’ game plan go from preparation to the highest degree to “Ohh no, not HIM again!” A lot of faith some supporters and management have in their players’ abilities!

Being at the wrong end of the league point’s spreadsheet has consequences. Matches of this sort can (and do) explode into mayhem on the smallest of incidents. I tell my assistants a match is a disaster in the making, just waiting to happen if officials fail to notice the slightest change in mood/temperature. In officiating parlance it is referred to as the “feel” for the match. Experienced referees will tell you that they develop a six sense when conditions on the field reach boiling point. Corrective measures should then be taken by the officials. A stronger pre-emptive word at players, sparingly applying advantage etc.  can help to cool down players inflamed attitudes. Referees then enter the realm of psychologist and manager. Conducting this tightrope between referee, being Freud and managing 22 players on the field is no easy task.

No referee worth his salt & profession should blindly accept his match assignment without doing some home work on the teams and their log standings. Predictive playing styles will go out of the window in searching for those elusive log points. Players are under immense scrutiny to raise their level of play. Jomo Sono, the head coach of Jomo Cosmos, had less to worry regarding job security. He owns and bankrolls his own team. An enviable position in football.

 The same can not be said for Gordon Igesund, the most successful coach in the Premier Soccer League and currently taskmaster of Maritzburg. He’s employers must be squeezing him for every ounce of coaching acumen, trying to reverse Maritzburg’s 1-5 drubbing at he hands of Mamelodi Sundowns and a 0-2 loss to Moroka Swallows.

My concentration levels during the match were, as they say, “in the zone.” I have the ability to get tunnel vision during matches – not every time – but when it occurs, it feels as if everything is flowing in the right direction, despite hiccups and incidents that might lessen your control on the match.  Ask me after the match what surroundings I noticed in/around the stadium and I’m likely to not give you a satisfactory answer. Or one at all.

Back to the night game. An interesting scenario occurred. A Cosmos player went down injured outside the 6-yard goal area, but play was swinging within the bigger penalty area as the home side Maritzburg United, 0-1 down, pressed their attacking advantage. To my judgement, and erring on the side of safety, I was of the opinion that the player was not seriously injured. No blood was spurting from an open wound, nor was there any head injury that required immediate medical intervention, nor could I see bones sticking out of his stockings due to an atrocious tackle. In fact, no infringement of the rules occurred when the Jomo Cosmos player went down as if shot between the eyes.

Glancing over my right shoulder during the attack I saw my 2nd assistant immediately correcting his offside line to that of the injured player. The latter is now a static second last defender (with the Goalkeeper in the goal mouth.) Good! As per Law 5, I allowed play to continue and the strong promising attack ended with the ball in the back of the net with their injured player still sprawled on his back. No guesses what happened next. Complaints. Why did their opponents not kick the ball out when the player was injured? Why should they? Why did you not stop play ref?

Effective 1 July 2009 – as customary every year – FIFA send their circular letters to different football confederations re-iterating and/or explaining the changes to the Laws of the Game. FIFA reminder to referees this year:  

“Referees are reminded that Law 5 states that the referee must stop the match if, in his opinion, a player is seriously injured.”

This statement is intended to reinforce a guideline issued earlier by the International Board (tasked with rule changes) of the practice of a team kicking the ball off the field to stop play when there is an apparent injury on the field, as it detracts from the responsibility of the referee under Law 5 to assess the injury and to stop play only if, in the opinion of the referee, the injury is serious.  Referees are therefore advised to be seen to quickly and publicly consider the status of any player seemingly injured and clearly decide whether or not the situation merits a stoppage of play.  Too wit, I waved play on with my left arm when Cosmos players were shouting that I should stop the match. And I shouted clearly: “PLAY ON!”  

Thus, the referee must control this decision as much as possible. It’s not up to the players to insist.

Would I have stopped play if the injury occured in the middle of the park with a slim chance for a promising attack? Yes. Would I have stopped play if I saw a serious injury, no matter where on the field of play? Certainly. Player safety is paramount, above any other consideration. FIFA’s Fair Play motto is underpinned by the well-known acronym S(afety) E(quality) E(njoyment). Safety comes first. Jomo Sono, the Cosmos coach, approached me as we walked off the pitch and graciously stated that he was OK with the decision to let play continue, despite his team being one defender down.

I reckon it’s pretty damn OK  if coaches know the Laws that govern their profession.